My trip to Paris came unexpectedly. I am a member of the professional music fraternity Mu Phi Epsilon, and I applied for a grant in February which offered a music student the opportunity to study in Paris. I did not think I would win, but I was more than thrilled to receive the grant. I have wanted to experience Paris since I arrived in the United States 18 years ago. When people asked me where I most wanted to visit, I always said Paris.
I did not have much time to prepare for this trip, but I did have specific places I wanted to visit so I could fully experience Parisian life, culture, and arts. This was difficult to accomplish because I neither spoke French nor knew anyone in Paris who could help me. The generosity of this grant allowed me to be flexible in planning my trip, and I wanted very much to bring back what I discovered and learned in Paris back to the United States. Because this was my first time going to Europe, I wanted to stay there as long as I could.
My studies in Paris centered on researching my dissertation project, an analysis of En Vers written by Japanese composer Akira Miyoshi. Before going to Paris, I went to Japan to see my parents. While I was there, I went to the University of Tokyo Musical Arts and the National Diet Library in Tokyo to begin my research. Surprisingly, I found a book no longer in print and which I could not obtain in the U.S. I was also able to have an interview with a member of the composition faculty whose teacher was Miyoshi. In addition, I practiced some basic French for my trip.
I had a rough travel experience from Denver, Colorado to Paris, France. I was indeed nervous, and I could not sleep the night before the departure. When I arrived in D.C., I could not get out of the airplane because of a tornado. As a result, I did not make my connecting flight to Brussels, Belgium. The airline company accommodated the situation, and I was put on a flight to Frankfurt, Germany. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris four hours later than I was originally scheduled. My luggage arrived a day late, my cellphone did not work, and, of course, I was experiencing a language barrier.
Despite all of this, things were getting better quickly. I met my friend from the University of Colorado who was attending a one-month-long summer music theory course in Paris. We explored the city for two days after I arrived, and I got acquainted with the metro system. It is common to smell cigarette smoke and other unpleasant odors on the subway cars and streets of Paris. Thankfully, I could divert my attention to street musicians in the subways who often were performing to earn some money. I was intrigued by the instruments and what they were playing. The accordion was prominent, and I also heard trumpet, trombone, and even clarinet! I heard lots of classical music, especially Bach. This tells me that those musicians were thinking that people who are passing by would appreciate hearing classical music. Of course I heard other genres of music as well. Interestingly, some of those musicians ride the subway and perform in the subway. I have never seen musicians performing on the trains! Graffiti is everywhere in Paris and might be considered an art form itself.
For my research, I went to two main libraries: the library of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP) and the the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). At both libraries, the people were kind and helpful. I found two solo piano pieces of Miyoshi’s composition teacher, Raymond Gallois-Montbrun, and two other scores which are out of print. The BnF is the biggest library in the country, and their online catalog is very useful. However, internet usage at the library is not as developed as one would assume. You can bring a laptop, but you cannot have internet connection at the music department in Richelieu, and they use a paper cataloging system. I looked up newspaper articles about Gallois-Montbrun. I also was able to interview a piano Professor Karolos Zouganelis at the Conservatoire and a French pianist Joséphine Ambroselli Brault about the piece I am working on. They were very accommodating and had interesting comments about En Vers. It was intriguing to talk with them about doctoral dissertation projects. The piano professor suggested a project of making a CD standard repertoire, such as complete set of Chopin Preludes and Etudes or Bach Goldberg Variations. His point was that the last stage of a pianist’s education - while still young - is a perfect time to learn, perform, and record some large-scale repertoire that can be played throughout one’s career. I offered that in the U.S. we are encouraged to learn non-standard pieces that no one has done before. The viewpoints are polar opposites, but both have good points and strong merits to help bolster a career as a pianist. I was also able to meet with a Japanese pianist Masumi Fukuya to talk about the Paris musical scenes and cultural differences between Japan and France. I visited many museums, including the Musée du Louvre, d’Orsay, l’Orangerie, Picasso, de la Vie Romantique, Marmottan, and Centre Georges Pompidou. Seeing paintings which I have only seen in art or music history textbooks was thrilling. Paris is filled with the arts.
I attended as many concerts as I could. There is a weekly information booklet called “Pariscop” (0.70 euro). The frequency of classical music performances shows how much this music is loved in Paris. Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, and Schumann are prominent on these recitals and concerts. In addition, I went to see the opera Alceste by Glück at the Opera Garnier. The construction of this hall started in 1861, and it finally opened in 1875. The Ballets Russes also used this hall for several seasons and gave the premieres of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Pulcinella, and other famous works. From the street, the building is impactful and you see it vividly. The inside is filled with lots of ornamentation and beautiful craftsmanship. Alceste was written a long time ago; however, the use of the stage was amazing and modern. They used a blackboard and white chalk to draw the background while the opera was performed. The singers also wore only black and white. This modern twist was refreshing. I also visited important musical sites, such as Notre-Dame cathedral, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Passy Cemetery, Ravel’s house, Chopin’s last apartment, and Mont-Saint Michel. The Mont-Saint Michel is about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Paris. The church was once used as a prison. Debussy visited there and was inspired to write one of his best-known preludes, La cathédrale engloutie, after reading the legend of Ys.
In my free time, I made a good friend, Bernard. His passion is music. When he is not working, he practices and plays all different styles of music. He invited me into his circle of friends, and we had a great time together. He showed me how people live in Paris. I went to a comedy club where you play the piano and comedians make the audience laugh. I was invited to his piano teacher’s house and performed in a recital where pianists played from 5 pm to 10 pm on a Saturday night with the windows open. We went to La Seine where people get together along the river to drink and socialize. I met one of his friends, Tristan, who was leaving at the end of month to become a monk, and we talked about life, religion, and human connections. I wish I had had more time with them to get to know them on a deeper level.
I have heard some Americans criticize French people for being snobby and not willing to speak English to Americans. However, I learned that manners are an important part of the culture, and visitors need to respect that culture. I always said “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur” when I went into a store, but I witnessed an American come into a store and start talking in English without saying “Bonjour.” I met many hospitable Parisians during my stay. One time when I was eating at a French restaurant shortly after I arrived in Paris, I was looking for a restroom after I was seated. I could not find it, and a nearby gentleman who was having dinner with his friends asked what I needed in English. He also asked me if I wanted to join them at their table. I had ordered the tartare not knowing what it was, and after one bite I could not eat it. The nice gentleman asked the waiter to brown the meat so I could eat. While we were eating, the three of them spoke in English to me. I know this is rare, but I truly appreciated their welcoming attitude.
On another occasion, I visited Maurice Ravel’s House in Montfort l’Amaury. This was quite an adventure for me. The house is located outside of Paris, requiring a subway and a train to get to it. The closest train is a 45-minute walk. Thankfully, I arrived there safely and took the tour. The tour guide gave me special permission to play Ravel’s piano, and I was speechless! Afterwards, a group of 14 people on the tour with me asked if I wanted to join them for lunch. We went to a restaurant where they already had a reservation. They treated me for lunch and said, “Some French are nice!” Indeed they are! A couple even invited me to join them for dinner on a different occasion. We had a Rose wine with the main dish at beginning, then six different kinds of cheeses were served with salad and dessert. The family told me that they eat cheese every day. The father thinks eating cheese is good for you and also keeps their identity. He mentioned that they do not watch TV during meal time. In fact, the TV is kept in a tiny room where they rarely watch it. Parisians go outside to enjoy entertainment, such as theater, cinema, and musical events, rather than watching TV. In fact, I met many French who do not own a TV. I don’t have a TV either, and I appreciated Parisians wanting to be out in their city and build strong family bonds.
France is an interesting country. The buildings are preserved as they were hundreds of years ago. It is a law to not build more than six floors above ground within the city limits and around Versailles in order to not obstruct the views. Unlike the earthquake-prone country of Japan where old buildings are not common, most buildings in Paris are old. Door knobs are placed in the center of the door instead of the edge. Despite the fact that Paris lacks many of the modern conveniences Americans become used to, somehow this becomes the beauty of this city. One month is not long enough to see everything in Paris. I wish I could have stayed longer. I fell in love with this city. Parisians are fashionable, especially the elderly, and there are abundant places to see, eat, drink, and socialize. The city attracts people from all over the world, and Parisians easily spend two hours having a nice meal with friends. They know the art of living.
This has been the biggest event in my life, and I truly appreciate all the people who guided me through this trip. I enjoyed meeting new people and seeing what surprises life had planned for me. I breathed the French air, discovered and listened to their music, saw countless art collections, felt the city’s age through its buildings, and ate their cuisine for a month. We can learn so much about a culture by living it rather than reading a book. I am convinced that seeing is believing, and this experience has been invaluable to me. I hope many people can have a chance to go abroad and experience a completely different lifestyle and learn from what other countries, cultures, and people have to offer.
I would like to thank everyone who helped make this trip possible, especially Dr. Mutsumi Moteki, Mr. Michael Kirtley, Dr. Carlos Caballero, and Dr. Andrew Cooperstock for introducing me to wonderful musicians while I was in Paris.